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Swapping innovation ideas with Cincinnati

Over the Rhine at night
Over the Rhine at night

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A few weeks ago, I was privileged to participate in the Detroit to Cincinnati City <swap> organized by the Hudson-Webber Foundation and Little Things Labs. The program took a handful of Detroit leaders in the non-profit, economic/community development and entrepreneurship sectors to observe what our Cincinnati counterparts are doing and learn from it. A significant piece of our time focused on touring Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine (OTR) district, an area rich with the kind of history, challenges, successes and still-unfinished business that make it a valuable case study for us in Detroit. 

Early on in our trip, de facto team captain Dave Egner reminded us to avoid the temptation to focus on the fundamental differences between Cincinnati and Detroit -- to avoid lamenting the "bones" we’re lacking, the gaps that cannot be bridged, and so on. Instead, Dave advised, find the valuable lessons. Seek the commonalities. Search out the learning opportunities. Flex your mind and concentrate a bit. It was good advice and set the stage for real learning.   

A few lessons stood out:

• Persistence, patience, pop: Walking through the OTR district and Cincinnati more generally, it’s tempting to feel deflated, to forget Dave’s advice and settle into a they’re-so-far-ahead-of-us feeling. The City <swap> team, though, ensured that we were closely accompanied by our local counterparts, who kept things in perspective. As we strolled through a landscape of success stories, the local team reminded us how new everything is. Many transformational projects filled spaces that were abandoned, blighted, neglected bastions of illicit activity until very recently; in some instances less than a year.
 
The fact is, they’re not so far ahead of us, just a little. Cincinnati, and the OTR district in particular, has had its share of strife, racial discord and civil unrest. It hasn’t broken through to some mythical other side of the social contract rainbow, yet it has enjoyed some great economic development successes while simultaneously working through difficult issues. 

The takeaway? A lesson in simple perseverance. Cincinnati reminded me that transformation does not happen quickly, but it’s not exactly gradual, either. "Incremental" is the better term. Like popcorn in your microwave, energy builds for a period of time with no immediate output. When enough energy accumulates, it releases, something pops, then the cycle repeats. 

It was clear to our group that Cincinnati’s economic and community development leaders -- notably the Cincinnati City Center Development Corporation (3CDC) which operates feverishly in a small area within OTR -- understand this phenomenon. They persist. They know the difference between real failure requiring course correction and the simple delay between investment and return. We were reminded not to confuse the latter with the former.  

In this regard, OTR is a supportive case study for the approach we’ve taken in Detroit. The approach taken by the greater downtown leadership such as Midtown Detroit, Inc., the Downtown Detroit Partnership and the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation mirrors 3CDC’s approach.  

Planning, persistence, patience, pop. Our leaders in the economic and community development spaces are operating with a confidence that allows them to stay on course even without immediate results. Dave Blaszkiewicz can stand before a thousand business leaders in 2013 and present a vision for downtown in 2016, and the audience gets it because they see the plan and have already begun to experience the implementation. They can accept waiting a couple years for the result.  And when the result comes, it will pop. I suspect as DEGC embarks on coordination of citywide programs aligned with the Detroit Future City framework, the same approach will apply and I’m hopeful the community will react in kind.

• Density is as much an architectural phenomenon as a population metric: Moving through the OTR district, I was struck by the presence of shadow, the feeling of envelopment that pervades a dense cityscape.  No wasted space. It occurred to me, however, as we strolled the streets on a weekday morning, there were hardly any people around. 

The feeling of density was a feature of the built environment. OTR’s architecture is a vestige of the influx of German immigrants in the 19th century. Its buildings are huddled close, its streets are narrow, its scope feels small and tight. I’m not an architect or urban planner, but OTR reminded me that the psychological reaction to a dense, clustered setting can be triggered by the built environment perhaps as much as the crowd of humanity.  

The takeaway? A check on our discussion of density in Detroit. Certainly population density is a driver of economic health in cities. It allows for more efficient deployment of infrastructure and services, it fertilizes the retail market, and it creates a sense of comfort and collective companionship -- a feeling of de-isolation. We understand, however, that increasing Detroit’s population density in key areas throughout the city has its limitations. Even in areas where there is pent up demand for housing the going may be slower than the ideal.  

Cincinnati reminds us to not neglect the built environment in our discussion of density. It reminds us that choices regarding physical structures that surround us -- what we preserve, how we make improvements, what we destroy, and what we build -- can influence the perception of density even where population is declining, stagnant or growing at a slower rate than we’d like.
   
• In the entrepreneurial space, play to your strengths: Along our way, we stopped by The Brandery. Let’s call it Cincinnati’s Bizdom, albeit without the brilliantly stimulating and exciting backdrop of the M@dison. The Brandery operates an acceleration program that provides participating startups with a $20,000 seed investment, along with mentors (including locals Jonathon Treist of Ludlow Ventures and Ted Serbinski of Detroit Venture Partners), design, operations and development support and a pitch day during which startups present to VCs and investors.

The composition of The Bradery’s portfolio of startups is varied, however its value proposition is more targeted. While it offers support on many fronts, the Brandery focuses on educating its startups on the importance of consumer marketing and branding, This approach is connected to Cincinnati’s existing strength in the area of consumer marketing and advertising services, with companies such as Procter & Gamble, Kroger and Macy’s, as well as marketing and advertising companies like Nielsen media company.

The takeaway? Let’s not forget to dance a bit with the girl (or guy) who brought us. Detroit’s ingrained skillset lies in tinkering, making, manufacturing. How well have we deployed that advantage recently? Not so well, I’d argue. We got spooked when the manufacturing economy took a turn on us, and that’s understandable. We talked about diversifying our economy, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But somewhere in there, we might have left some resources on the table.

Sure Ponyride, TechShop, TechTown, Next Energy, OmniCorp and others do offer resources for entrepreneurs whose business ideas involve physical fabrication. But that doesn’t quite hit the mark here. I’m suggesting we consider deploying our manufacturing skill to assist entrepreneurs who don’t themselves bring that skill to the table.  

There is plenty of unemployed skilled labor in this city. Might it have something to offer startups? The standard tech accelerator model assumes the startup shows up with a founding team that possesses some business skill and perhaps programming skill. The accelerator then fills gaps by offering assistance in design, legal, accounting, HR, and so on. The Brandery goes a step further and waves the branding flag, presenting that as a specialized area of assistance that’s particularly strong in Cincinnati.  

Why couldn’t we do something similar in Detroit? An entrepreneur shows up with an idea, some business savvy, maybe even some design and engineering talent. Could our accelerators offer manufacturing talent on stand-by? Seems that could attract hi-tech, non-Internet based businesses by deploying a Detroit-specific value proposition. Such an approach would have the added benefit of putting people to work. Something to chew on.

All in all, our brief trip was sprinkled with inspiration and aspiration, and it left me feeling encouraged. It re-enforced the idea that Detroit’s economic and community development leaders are not in need of some fundamental course correction.  The occasional tweak here, adjustment there, sure. But Cincinnati reminded us that we are largely on the right course.   We simply need to keep at it.

Jeff Aronoff is executive director at D:hive.
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